The Right Has Made “Free Speech” A Meaningless Term
The "Free Speech Defenders" don't actually want to protect speech — they want to coddle their own.
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In Solidarity — Joe
No term has become more of a political lightning rod in recent years than “free speech.” What was once a very clear and celebrated principle — the right to say anything without being punished by the government — has been warped and maligned to the point it’s unrecognizable. Like a copy of a bootleg DVD, the current discourse around “free speech” is so far from its original meaning that it has left many Americans, some of them even professional political commentators, unsure of what is and is not a violation of one’s “free speech.”
In recent years, the parroting of the need to “protect free speech rights” has been the cause celebre of the right wing. Faced with a culture that is quickly moving away from conservative values, rightist pundits and politicians have used free speech claims as a Trojan Horse to inject their beliefs into a culture that would rather not hear them. Through this lens, any and all criticism, disagreement, or refusal to amplify their thoughts are considered “a violation of their free speech.”
This dynamic appeared during take the recent curfuffle between Coleman Hughes, a Black writer and podcaster, and TED, the nonprofit renowned for its “TED Talks.” Last April, Mr. Hughes gave a TED Talk defending the concept of color “blindness,” which he defines as, “the idea that we should treat people without regard to race, both in our personal lives and in our public policy.” By his own account, the talk went well, and he was even given a partial standing ovation.
Yet last week, Mr. Hughes took to The Free Press to accuse TED of “suppressing his ideas.”
In the above article, Mr. Hughes gives the following as evidence that his speech was “suppressed,” which he believes was done due to TED being “captured by the new progressive orthodoxy.”
The day after his speech, the employee resource group Black@TED criticized Hughes’ ideas. The group considered inviting him for a private discussion, but it ultimately fell through.
At the concluding town hall discussion of the TED conference, two audience members called Hughes’ speech “racist.” The head of TED, Chris Anderson, took the microphone, thanked the commenters for their opinions, and defended Hughes by saying, “TED can’t shy away from controversy on issues that matter so much.”
Weeks after the conference, Hughes received an email from TED explaining that instead of posting his talk directly to YouTube, they wished for Mr. Hughes to participate in a moderated conversation that “will be published as an extension of your talk.” Hughes pushed back, not wanting his talk to become convoluted. Eventually, they reached a compromise that TED would post his talk online on July 28th, and he would participate in a debate that would be posted separately two weeks later. TED posted both videos, as planned.
In August, Hughes started to claim he was “being suppressed” after noticing his TED Talk had received only 73k views. He also complains that the corresponding debate with journalist Jamelle Bouie, which he originally did not want to do, got only 5k. As evidence of malicious suppression, Hughes claims:
“Either my TED content is performing extremely poorly because it is far less interesting than most of TED’s content, or TED deliberately is not promoting it. A string of evidence points to the latter explanation.”
To recap: Coleman Hughes was invited to give a TED Talk, perhaps the highest-profile stage a writer can find. When his speech was criticized by TED employees and audience members, the head of TED defended the talk as “an important issue.” Weeks later, Hughes was invited to share his thoughts in another video produced and published by TED with a New York Times journalist. And yet, because his video got fewer views than others, he is now claiming his speech is being “suppressed,” despite his talk being watched by more than 200,000 people.
Again, both his original talk and the bonus debate are online, ready and waiting for you to view. No one is suppressing them, and yet, the cadre of expected Free Speech Defenders have already taken up Hughes’ cause as yet another example of “progressives” and “woke mobsters” suppressing free speech.
It’s no surprise that Hughes’ complaint was published in Bari Weiss’s The Free Press. For years now, Weiss has tried to sell herself as a “Free Speech Crusader,” standing up against cancel culture and attacks on free speech. Weiss was an eager participant in “The Twitter Files,” a public relations stunt by Elon Musk masked as an anti-censorship expose. Previously a New York Times opinion columnist, Weiss famously resigned from the paper in the summer of 2020, citing coworkers “smearing her on Twitter” and “posting ax emojis next to her name.” (The horror!)
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